When Safety Becomes Dangerous


Searching for Safety, by Aaron Wildavsky, Rutgers, N.J.: Transaction, 253 pages, $32.95/$16.95

"Don't play for safety," wrote English novelist Hugh Walpole. "It's the most dangerous thing in the world."

Today, the proudest boast of our political leaders is to give us safety, safety, and more safety, in quantities ever more copious. They vow to rescue us from flammable sleepwear and the hazards of the business cycle; from tipping over in an off-road vehicle and getting eyestrain at our computer terminal; and, most urgently, from all things "toxic." They stand ready to block any novel technology whose full hazards are not currently knowable, from gene-splicing to the smokeless cigarette. Their most popular spending programs are couched not as welfare but as "social insurance" against life's reverses. Their big new tort liability system is conceived as one-part accident insurance and one-part safety regulation.

Just as governments imprison people in the name of liberty, says Aaron Wildavsky, so they endanger people in the name of safety. The safety mania of the modern state is not merely expensive, disruptive, and coercive; it actually makes life more hazardous.

This is an ambitious argument, and Searching for Safety is an ambitious book. Wildavsky, an eminent and prolific political scientist, seems to have ransacked the Berkeley library for analogies and examples in fields from aerophysics to zoology; one never knows what will come next. The resulting book can be discursive to the point of vexation; where it scores is in its wealth of provocative detail and in the likable personality, both outspoken and judicious, that animates Wildavsky's book.

Its political implications are devastating. Evidence on the failures of the new safety regulation has been mounting rapidly. Wildavsky's may be the first stab at a general account of why it fails so often and so systematically. The method now in vogue for pursuing safety, the author shows again and again, is: identify a risk, ban it; identify another risk, ban it, too; and so on. But most of the easy safety apples were long ago plucked from the tree. What remains are choices between one risk and another, and government chooses badly.

Some of these trade-offs seem obvious. If cyclamates are banned, people consume more saccharin instead; if nuclear power is blocked, more coal and wood get burned; if needless precautions drive up the price of airline tickets, more people drive between cities.

Yet time and again the government cracks down on the lesser risk and drives society toward the greater. The alternative punished least by regulators and courts tends to be the no-technology option of letting nature take its course, which is typically the most hazardous of all, whether the aim is to heat homes, preserve meat, or immunize children.

Safety levels correlate poorly with regulatory bustle. On a graph of trends in workplace or household injuries, one cannot detect the influence of OSHA or the Consumer Product Safety Commission. But safety correlates extremely well with wealth, both individual and societal. As people grow more affluent their environment changes for the better in a hundred ways. "For a forty-five year old man working in manufacturing," points out liability law expert Peter Huber, "a 15 percent increase in income has about the same risk-reducing value as eliminating all hazards—every one of them—from his workplace."

In the long run, the most promising of all public health measures is to let people be productive and spend their earnings as they see fit. A regulatory edict or liability doctrine that forces consumers to pay $50 million in higher prices for every life it saves is likely to be a net drain on their health because leaving that sum in their pockets will save more than one life—though we can never know how or whose.

Today's coercive policies, Wildavsky says, err in their obsession with "anticipation," in predicting dangers and evading them beforehand. It is a strategy "based on a fear of regret."

Where a free and decentralized society has the edge is in its contrasting quality of resilience, its ability to "roll with the punches." It permits very large numbers of people to make small forays into the world, "interrogating the unknown." Some come to grief. But by flirting with danger, allowing it to show its head before committing to a response, society builds up knowledge of hazards and begins to master them.

This natural trial-and-error process is blocked by centralized safety management. "If the parts of a system are prevented from facing risks, the whole will become unable to adapt to new dangers." What has arisen instead is the demand for "trial without error"—no innovation until the results can be predicted in advance—which places insuperable demands on the knowledge of regulators.

In recent years a consensus has been emerging that the most serious man-made hazards are not those like pollution that outsiders inflict on us but those we accept voluntarily—saturated fat, beltless driving, and all the rest. This recognition might logically have led to a seemly modesty about regulation's role in advancing safety. What has emerged instead is a ferocious paternalism aimed at protecting us forcibly from the known hazards of our own inclinations. Legislators rage against drinking on college campuses, liability courts are shutting down the more hazardous amateur sports, and so on.

This is bad for freedom, and in the long run it may be bad for safety too. People, like societies, need resilience. The young soccer player does indeed run a small risk of a hideous spinal injury, but his inactive brother runs a different risk, that of not having tested and honed the physical and mental capacities that he may someday need in an emergency or otherwise.

That the keys to risk reduction might lie in our own hands is still, of course, a claim that shocks many. A lot of Americans remain unshakably convinced that the real dangers of modern life lie in being poisoned by radiation leaks and industrial chemicals that have seeped into the water table.

The very invisibility and unprovability of these emanations gives them a potency that defies anything expert opinion can do in the way of reassurance. It calls to mind the James Thurber story of an eccentric aunt who had read too many thrillers and lived in dread that burglars would pipe a colorless, odorless nerve gas into her room as she slept. In nightly terror she would leave all her valuables at the top of the stairs with a note on the bedroom door saying, "Here they are—please let me live." The modern regulatory state asks us to emulate her, by leaving wealth that is real at the top of the stairs in hopes of being spared dangers that are all too often fanciful.

Walter Olson is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and editor of New Directions in Liability Law (Academy of Political Science, 1988).